serie a

How Paying €90 Million for a Player Who's Peaked Became a Shrewd Move for Juve

Gonzalo Higuain is only one part of the most significant transfer window in the game.

by Mike Piellucci
29 July 2016, 12:15pm

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The thing about the €90 million Juventus spent to airlift Gonzalo Higuain out from Napoli – their closest domestic competitor – and plop him on to the tip of their attack, is that it's not really about the €90 million. Higuain is just one piece of what will likely wind up as the most significant transfer window of any club in Europe.

Still, €90 million is a fuckload of money to drop on a single player. It is, point in fact, the third-highest transfer fee in history, topped only by Cristiano Ronaldo (€94 million) and Gareth Bale (€100 million) with their respective moves to Real Madrid. Luis Suarez, previously the most expensive striker in history, went to Barcelona for €82 million. Ronaldo and Bale were each 24 years old at the time of their transfers; Suarez was 25. Ronaldo and Suarez were comfortably regarded among the world's top five players, while Bale's breakout year at Tottenham lent credence to him ascending toward a similar echelon.

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Ronaldo, Bale, Suarez, Higuain. One of these things is not like the other. The Argentine will turn 29 in December and has been stellar far more often than superlative. The most notable exception came last season, when he authored the greatest scoring campaign in Serie A history. Not only did Higuain's 36 league goals break Gunnar Nordahl's 66-year-old record; no other player even cracked 20. The 17-goal gap between Higuain and Paulo Dybala, his new strike partner at Juventus, shattered the previous record of 10 goals between top and second scorers, which had stood since 1930.

Higuain, who had totaled only 35 league goals over the previous two seasons, will probably never top or even replicate what he has already achieved. In that sense, yes, €90 million seems a touch excessive, even if the bottom-line hit is less consequential than deals from the turn of the century.

But the Higuain transfer – and, by extension, Juventus' entire market – matters more in the context of two larger developments. The first is Juventus embracing the Bayern Munich model of cannibalizing its domestic competition. This is the gory byproduct of Financial Fair Play, a supposed panacea for big club domination that instead exacerbated the issue by killing off the game's upper-middle class. The English game is too cash flush to ever truly be affected, while the insoluble Barcelona-Real Madrid dynamic safeguards against unipolarity in La Liga, even if Atletico Madrid did suffer another financial crisis.

No such balance exists elsewhere. Bayern has cut down Borussia Dortmund's ascendance at every turn, poaching Robert Lewandowski, Mats Hummels, and Mario Gotze, and then most recently chewing up and spitting out the latter's bones back into Dortmund's squad for €11 million less than they paid in the first place. In three years, the gap between the league's most storied club and its only true rival has widened from one goal in the 2013 Champions League final to an unprecedented four straight league titles for Bayern.

Now the same thing seems to be happening in Italy, where Juventus – already five-time defending champions – have a tighter choke hold on Serie A than ever. Buoyed by Italy's only modern stadium, the Old Lady's revenue dwarfs the rest of the league. Meanwhile, no two teams were hit harder by FFP than the Milan clubs, whose owners can no longer offset the San Siro's meager gate proceeds by dipping into personal fortunes the way Silvio Burlesconi and Massimo Moratti so often did a decade ago. The league's traditional ruling triad has shrunk to a monopoly, with Inter last participating in the Champions League in 2011-12 and Milan finishing their last two Serie A campaigns 10th and seventh, respectively.

Miralem Pjanic is Juventus' other massive zero-sum transfer this window. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

This off-season, more than any since the start of their run, Juventus' recourse has been to prey on the less-established pretenders to their throne. Poaching Higuain from runners-up Napoli is the flashpoint, but paying the €32 million release clause that third-placed Roma slapped on Miralem Pjanic is equally crucial. Acquiring centre-back Medhi Benatia on loan from Bayern is a more indirect route to the same destination. The Frenchman left Roma two years ago in search of titles and his choosing to return to Italy with Juventus is reminiscent of Inter inking another former Roma defensive stalwart, Walter Samuel, a decade ago, after he flopped at Real Madrid.

All three players fit needs. Pjanic's silky blend of deep-lying playmaking and set-piece precision fills the midfield void that Andrea Pirlo vacated. Higuian is a belated stand-in for Carlos Tevez. Benatia will play successor-in-waiting to 35-year-old Andrea Barzagli within the famed BBC backline.

But where they come from matters every bit as much as what they do on the pitch. Signing the best player from each of the country's other two Champions League qualifiers is a symbolic sledgehammer to Serie A's craggy infrastructure, an irrefutable sign that the players are just as cognisant as everyone else watching of how the league is, for now, hopelessly tilted in one club's favor. It is a swaggering reminder that Juventus has interminable control of the league – if not in reality, then at least in perception.

Pragmatically speaking, it helps far more abroad. The Champions League is Juventus' final frontier and, while they'll enjoy the most immediate impact of the transfers in Italy, this is a zero-sum operation. The leaner the domestic competition, the more room it grants Juventus to laser in on Europe. The longer it takes that field to catch up, the tighter they can bring that focus.

That €90 million did more than purchase a missing piece for the attack. It bought Juventus time, an even more essential commodity that shouldn't be for sale in the first place.

They can afford it – or, at least, they will be able to – due to the expected sale of Paul Pogba for a likely world-record fee, probably to Manchester United. It makes sense through every prism. Juventus are compensated handsomely for an asset they acquired on a free transfer and United are exactly the lavishly profligate club that would drop nine-figure money to reacquire a player they once had in their possession. Pogba is worth it, a truly complete midfielder who already dominates at age 23.

Should it happen, Juventus would alter two of the world's most prestigious leagues in the stroke of three moves, while playing a part in two of the four priciest transfers in history. Other clubs will outlay more money or import more bodies, but none will make as much of an impact on as grand a scale. The Old Lady has climbed to the top of Serie A based shrewdness, and it's no different here. €90 million may seem like a lot for Higuain, but it will be well worth it when they get what they paid for.